Ocean racing skipper Pip Hare on the ideal cockpit set-up for cruising couples or short-handed racers.

The simple things we take for granted when sailing with crew can become a nightmare double-handed. Dropping the main on a blustery night with one of you stuck behind the helm and the other wrestling a flailing sail is not fun for anyone.

These problems are often compounded when couples sail together as women tend to be (although not always) physically smaller and less strong. It is not enough to plan that the strongest crew member should always handle sails, as this leaves a potential area of weakness and risk.

Ideally no part of a double-handed boat should be manageable by only one of the two crew members, not only to ensure that you can sail to safety if one crew is injured, but also for everyone’s enjoyment. If either crew finds an area of the boat too physically demanding, it’s important to adapt the controls to suit the less powerful sailor, starting with the mainsail and cockpit.

For short-handed crews, mainsails need to be quick to drop in an emergency and require no feeding when hoisting, to avoid unnecessary trips out of the cockpit. Avoid using a main with a bolt rope, because when the sail is dropped it will not remain captive at the mast and can quickly become uncontrollable.

My ultimate choice for a double-handed cruising main would be fully battened on a track with lazy jacks and a stack pack bag – a system also used by some of the larger ocean racing boats. With this set-up if pointing into the breeze, you can just release the halyard and the whole sail will fall down and be contained.

Wheel and main controls

Keep in touch with the wheel and the mainsail controls at the same time.

If you don’t want to install a track on your mast then check out trackless batten car systems. Sliders with lazyjacks are a good second choice.

Mainsail controls need to be manageable for either crew, and positioned within reach of the helm. Conventional mainsheet systems should be set up with a bottom block that can swivel and a cam cleat pitched at the right angle for release from the helming position – this may take a bit of trial and error.

For couples, test the loads on mainsheet and traveller when the boat is powered up and make sure you are both able to sheet on the main and pull up the traveller. If this is not the case, look at increasing purchase or adding a fine tune.

Keep your traveller clean and well lubricated; stiff travellers are often caused by a damaged track, or missing ball bearings from the car.

Find a system for leading the kicker back to the helming position so it can be released quickly if overpowered on a reach or run. On a lot of boats the kicker is fed through a jammer on the coachroof, which means if you are helming on deck alone, it would be impossible to release. In these situations a kicker with a longer tail could perhaps be temporarily led to the windward primary winch, with the jammer open.

Jib cars and spinnaker tweakers can often become so loaded they are difficult to pull or release. Jib cars that are positioned using stoppers on a track should be replaced for cars that are adjustable from the cockpit.

jib cars and tweakers

Ensure your jib cars and tweakers can be adjusted from the cockpit single-handed.

When setting up these systems use the thinnest diameter rope you can comfortably hold and don’t be afraid to add in an extra loop of purchase. Also, consider using jammers instead of cam cleats for easier releasing, and if possible position jib car jammers with a clean lead to the primary winch.

Less powerful crew members need to make the most of the boat’s winches. Use locking turning blocks to hold jib sheets while the winch is used for something else, plus snatch blocks in the cockpit to help lead ropes temporarily across the cockpit to other winches. But watch for riding turns when doing this and don’t forget to unlock your turning block when the jib sheet goes back on the winch.